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Harping on NAEP

NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and standardized reading and math test scores are often referred to by Wyoming Liberty Group in its articles about Wyoming K-12 education. Since WLG is not enthusiastic about federal involvement in education, people may reasonably ask why WLG seems to harp on them.

To begin with, reading and math are emphasized because they are vital tools for life. They are the underpinnings of communication and kids need all the proficiency in these subjects they can muster. The sooner students master reading and math, the sooner they can effectively grasp and absorb other subjects.

Years ago, a large majority of the US population worked in agriculture. Long periods working alone were common and communication needs were not sophisticated. Today, nearly the entire world is wired. We are constantly communicating through a nearly endless list of ways. Many of us work with computer application code or data. Artists who are self-employed need to figure out how much to charge for their works in order to stay in business and how to write their artistic vision for gallery owners. The cause of the first space shuttle Challenger disaster was traced in part to poor communication.

Graph1 Long Term Trend Scores Reading

Standardized tests get a lot of bad press. Some people object to them on principle. Many educators complain about the emphasis placed on them. Those complaints have validity. Too many different tests, too frequently administered, teaching to the test, de-emphasizing other subjects all pose dangers to quality education. The importance of broad education is well known in the development of a young person and a high reading test score is not the fulfillment of anyone’s idea of a good education.

As various sources report, however, standardized tests do have utility when properly used and NAEP is the best long-term benchmark for measuring progress in reading and math. “… (NAEP) is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas…” It is run out of the U.S. Department of Education and has an appointed governing board of non-partisan members including governors, state legislators, state and local officials, educators, business people and others.

NAEP is not immune to criticism. One important example is Grading the Nation’s Report Card (1999), a lengthy critique which at once said NAEP was too big and complicated, yet called for more complexity and detail. Two conclusions stood out – 1) a need for inclusion/reporting on students for whom English is a second languages and on students with disabilities and 2) adjustment in the way achievement levels (basic, proficient, advanced) are set. (Note that those objections don’t affect the validity of the scores themselves as shown in the accompanying graphs.)

Graph1 Long Term Trend Scores Math

On the other hand, NAEP is broad, impartially administered, consistent and statistically rigorous. Most importantly, its long-term trend report is the only one which provides the trend over time of the education system’s performance, as a whole. History and consistency outweigh the faults NAEP has because without those, a benchmark has limited value. Too many times benchmarks have been changed- the goalposts moved - with the result that progress is immeasurable and accountability therefore impossible.

The graphs above show there’s been little improvement in over four decades despite a near tripling (after adjusting for inflation) of spending in the U.S. on K-12 education. Those are the reasons we focus on reading and math through NAEP. Without NAEP, we would not know there’s been so little progress in our students’ academic outcomes. Let’s keep an eye on our NAEP reading and math scores because long-term, stable testing systems allow us to hold our education system accountable and provide evidence for the need for real reform in public education.  

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